Just a Swingin’: Kapporos

This ritual has a controversial history and is avoided by some and embraced by others. Kapporos has the status of a custom rather than a law and many observant Jews prefer not to do Kapporos because it looks silly (since it is not a law, the reasoning goes, it can be dropped). Animal rights activists are also upset by this ritual, because they think it involves cruelty to animals. However, animals are not harmed during Kapporos any more than they would be during any kind of slaughter, and kosher slaughter, since it requires one stroke of a very sharp blade, is the most humane way of killing an animal.

However, the kosher slaughter is not the part of the ritual that some consider bizarre. Every man, woman and child is required to take a chicken of the same gender (males take rooster, women take hens and pregnant women take both if the sex of the child is unknown) and swing the chicken in circles around their heads while saying prayers. The purpose of this is that all of one’s sins should enter the chicken, and, at the end of the “chicken swinging” when the chicken is slaughtered, that the chicken is killed instead of us.

I don’t know the origins of this custom, but many people find it quite unusual. I heard a true story about an Orthodox father who was trying to convince her daughter’s non-Jewish boyfriend to stop dating her. He decided to tell him something really“weird” about Jews; “And you know what we do before Yom Kippur? We take chickens and we swing them around their heads.” The young man paused a minute and after trying to picture the scenario in his mind, he said “Dude! That’s Awesome!”

I happen to like Kapporos and am not put off by the strangeness of it. I guess it demonstrates what we are willing to go through to achieve atonement and to have our sins forgiven. Sometimes we have to be willing to look silly to ensure our confession is not mechanical but sincere.